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When is the Last Time You Heard a Sermon on Contraception?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/02/14

New alliance between Catholic physicians and priests will tackle difficult medical and moral questions

When was the last time you felt awkwardly out of place?  I felt that way, at least initially, when I spoke last week in Orlando, FL at the annual conference of the Catholic Medical Association. I felt out of place there because my training is primarily in the humanities, and I was surrounded by people with broad and deep training in the hard sciences. Was God playing a joke on me? I suspected as much because during my talk I decided to conduct a scientific experiment—in front of almost 700 medical professionals.  Although I was disappointed with the results, I think the experiment was a success, so I thought I’d repeat that experiment here.

While speaking on “Moral Courage in Medicine”, I suggested that faithful Catholics need to know how to find and cultivate allies—a task that we cannot afford to get wrong. I wanted to show that faithful Catholics have long suffered from the lack of pastoral and professional encouragement that faithful Catholic allies can and should provide. My attempt at an experiment was to take a quick survey by a show-of-hands among those at the conference.  I started with a simple question:  “How many of you, since 1968, have heard ten or more homilies in your home parish on the merits of Humanae Vitae and the evils of contraception?”  Fewer than 5% raised their hands. I continued:  “How many of you have heard at least five such homilies?  At least three?  At least one?”  All could see that the overwhelming majority had not heard even one such homily in their parishes since 1968, the year that Humanae Vitae was promulgated. That raises a very important question: Why not?

I hesitate to ask that question, even though I think it should be asked, because it can lead to a great deal of speculation, much of which would likely not be immediately helpful.  I say that because such speculation may distract us from an even more important question:  What can be done about it?

And here’s where the good news begins.  First, the moral law, available to ordinary human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, is on the side of the teaching of the Church regarding human sexuality and contraception.  I have taught 19-year old college sophomores how to demonstrate to a hostile audience that contraception is an intrinsic evil because it frustrates the symbolic meaning of human sexuality and it is a violation of human dignity.  If a bright and willing undergraduate can do this, then surely the rest of us Catholic adults can learn to do the same.  We can tell the world that we oppose contraception not because of some wacky Catholic quirk but because we can show that it is a moral evil.

The other good news is that science, available to ordinary human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, is on the side of the teaching of the Church regarding human sexuality and contraception.  My undergraduates have studied the data and can demonstrate that contraception is an act of physical/chemical violence against the human body.  People who know the scientific truth and who love each other don’t inflict contraception on those they love.  

Taken together, these two bits of good news produce a third bit of good news.  Even Father Typical at Saint Ordinary’s parish (wherein nearly everyone sexually active is almost certainly contracepting) need not be afraid to teach and preach about a sensitive topic even though he might at first be met with skepticism or indignation.  The moral and scientific facts, along with the authentic teaching of the Church can be brought with Father Typical into the pulpit, the confessional, his marriage preparation sessions, and the parish class room.  And that fact brings me to some especially good news, news I learned while attending the CMA conference.

The very good news I learned at the CMA conference is that the parish priest has allies.  The CMA, with a generous grant from Our Sunday Visitor Institute, has begun a program called, “Holy Alliance:  Serving the Divine Physician.”  The purpose of the Holy Alliance Initiative is to develop a priest-physician buddy system so priests can have rapid contact available for medical questions.  Faithful Catholic doctors stand ready to educate parish priests about the science underlying difficult medical/moral issues so that they can preach and teach with confidence.  And priests can refer parishoners with doubts or difficulties to these same physicians.   The priest does not have to stand alone, and can point parishoners who may need a level of expertise beyond what could be expected of a parish priest to a skilled expert who is also a faithful Catholic.

At the same time, CMA intends the Holy Alliance to be a two-way street.  Priests can offer guidance to doctors regarding the moral practice of medicine.  Faithful Catholic doctors will be glad to know that they can refer patients in need of moral guidance, spiritual direction and the sacraments to faithful priests who are conversant in medical/moral issues.

When I write or speak in public, I never want people to respond with, “Well, that’s nice” or “How interesting!”  I prefer to have people respond with, “What should we do right now?”  Right now, it’s time for us to start pairing priests and doctors.  The faithful need the authentic teaching of the Church regarding medical/moral matters given to them by priests, especially in preaching, spiritual direction, marriage preparation, and in the confessional.  Catholic doctors need to be taught, encouraged and held accountable by priests to ensure that their medical practice is a moral medical practice, in harmony with the natural moral law, good science, and the magisterium of the Church.  If we pair doctors and priests via the Holy Alliance Initiative, everybody wins.  And then we can begin to get out of the medical/moral muddle we presently find ourselves in.

So, now what?  Start by asking for more information about the Holy Alliance Initiative by emailing info@cathmed.org.  Tell the Catholic doctors you know that help is on the way, and solicit their aid as you seek allies for priests.  Tell your priests about the great teaching and preaching you are expecting to hear from them once they are paired with faithful Catholic doctors, and solicit their aid as you seek allies for Catholic doctors.

And then?  Then let everyone here know about what’s happening as you follow through on your plan to grow the Holy Alliance between priests and doctors.  Leave comments in the Comments section of this column, and help us all to keep track of the progress and challenges you meet.

When I write next, I will discuss authentic Catholic community and its counterfeits.  Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J.is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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Contraception
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